Poor Ruth

Ruth Madoff in happier times, July 1981, Montauk.Photo: GI/BM/Getty Images

A month before her husband would confess to the largest financial fraud in history, Ruth Alpern Madoff put on a silky black dress, fixed her frosted blonde hair, slipped on her eyeglasses, took her husband by the hand, and breezed into the Doubletree Inn in Fort Lee, New Jersey. It was the 50th reunion of Far Rockaway High School’s class of 1958, and although Ruth, 68, had lost touch with most of her friends from that time, she wouldn’t have missed it for anything. Few people from her school days knew exactly what had become of Ruth, but no one was surprised to see her arriving on the arm of Bernie Madoff: “They were a couple since I knew them,” says a childhood friend of Ruth’s who sat with them that night. “I never knew Ruth without Bernie; it’s like bacon and eggs.”

Ruth sat with a couple of old friends, gossiping about what had happened to their classmates and remembering the days of double dates and the Springfield roller rink. She was now the carefully groomed better half of the wealthiest couple of Far Rockaway’s 1958 class, and those who hadn’t stayed in contact were curious about Bernie’s success. Ruth wasn’t ostentatious; she didn’t brag. In the reunion book, she wrote simply but proudly of the life she and her husband had built: “After college I married Bernie Madoff … Bernie and I worked together in the investment business that he founded in 1960. We have two sons, Mark and Andy, five grandchildren and one more on the way … Currently I travel and hang out with my grandchildren.” There was no hint that things were about to change.

Now, in the aftermath of Bernard Madoff’s sentencing, Ruth is one of the most reviled figures in New York, a widow of sorts, whose family has splintered into opposing camps. In an impressive act of self-preservation and media savvy, Ruth’s sons retained lawyers and the high-powered crisis-management firm Sard Verbinnen & Co. right after their father confessed to his crimes and have refused to communicate with their mother ever since. The silent treatment reportedly isn’t because they think Ruth was in on her husband’s fraud but because of her tendency to side with Bernie in any situation.

“I think [Andy’s] perspective is, when all this happened, his parents ceased to exist for him,” says Alexandra Lebenthal, a friend of Andrew Madoff’s.

The sons’ lawyer, Martin Flumenbaum of Paul, Weiss, explained the distance as a purely legal move: “As I would do in any government investigation of this complexity, I have instructed my clients not to have contact with other potential witnesses involved in the investigation.”

Ruth is said to be incredibly hurt by her sons’ behavior—they were close for most of their lives, with a long tradition of spending summer weekends together in Montauk. She lived for time with her grandchildren, but now she sees them only during limited visitation, and her sons are never present. According to someone who has spoken to Ruth recently, “She sounds beaten up.”

With no PR advice aside from her lawyers’, Ruth has been maligned more than any other Wall Street criminal’s wife in memory. She’s become the primary punching bag for the media and the victims—many of whom still suspect her involvement despite the fact that she has yet to be indicted and anonymous sources suggested last week she likely won’t be. After a seven-month policy of radio silence, Ruth decided to make a statement on the day her husband was sentenced to 150 years in prison. “Ruth released the statement when she did for two reasons,” says her lawyer, Peter Chavkin. “First, because she did not want to impact her husband’s sentencing, and second, because the misinterpretations of her silence became most obvious in the days preceding the sentencing.”

Her statement was measured in its compassion (“Lives have been upended and futures have been taken away”), careful in its wording (never mentioning exactly when she “learned from my husband that he had committed an enormous fraud”), and somehow unsatisfying to those who had been waiting to hear Ruth condemn Bernie’s actions (“The man who committed this horrible fraud is not the man whom I have known for all these years”). But it was a start. She seemed to realize, finally, that she would not simply be allowed to fade from public view, that her family tragedy had entered a new, meta stage: From this point forward, her life—and her children’s lives—would be about trying to manage the perception of guilt.

During Bernie’s final court appearance, Ruth was invoked repeatedly by his victims, almost as if she’d forced him to steal from them. “It pains me so much to remember my husband, a fine physician, getting up in the middle of the night and going into the hospital … so that Bernie Madoff could buy his wife a Cartier watch,” seethed one. “Your wife rightfully so has been vilified and shunned by her friends in the community … You have a marriage made in hell,” said another. The Internet mobs have been almost rabid in their treatment of her. “Time to burn this witch,” reads a typical comment.

Trailing Ruth: stalked on the sidewalk, March 19.Photo: Daniel Shapiro/Splash News

Bernie may be behind bars, but his crime is still very much an unsolved mystery, a tangled money trail that may take years to sort out. Fairly or not, as long as there are loose ends, and until every last penny of the $170 billion prosecutors say flowed through his fraudulent enterprise is accounted for, Ruth will be a target of suspicion. In the public eye, Ruth has come to represent the spoils of her husband’s criminal activity: The lifestyle, the furs and jewelry, the fancy hair salon, the clinking glasses at parties, the trips around the world—they all seemed like they were her domain, orchestrated and enjoyed more by her than by the stone-faced, withdrawn Bernie. It didn’t matter that Ruth came from modest beginnings; something about the way she carried herself—her highlighted hair, the upturned collar and petite physique—played into the stereotype of the pampered, free-spending wife.

Ruth’s problem seems to be a particularly female one. “It’s the gender politics of the culture,” says Gloria Steinem. “It’s easier to blame the person with less power.” And, she adds, why aren’t people blaming her sons? “They would be much more likely to be in cahoots, because they were in the same professional field. And the answer is, they’re men, that’s why.”

The court of public opinion has not given Ruth the benefit of the doubt about whether she could have been unaware of her husband’s activities, as she has maintained. But there was a time when it was considered normal for wives not to keep track of everything that their spouses were doing. “I’ve spent decades writing about marriage, and I have never ceased to be astonished at what women don’t know about their husbands,” says Leslie Bennetts, author of The Feminine Mistake. “I don’t know about Ruth Madoff, but an awful lot of men deceive their wives.”

According to a friend from high school, it would not have been difficult to keep Ruth in the dark. “I don’t know if you fully understand the difference between you and us,” says the woman in her late sixties. “When we were young, and the man came home for dinner, he was the king of the house and we catered to him … We were the type of people who, if your husband came home and said, ‘Sign this,’ you wouldn’t ask why. If he asked you to sign it, you would sign it.”

Like many women of her generation, Ruth relied on her husband to support her and the children. Even if she had suspected that something was amiss with Bernie’s business, she would have been faced with a terrible, Carmela Soprano–esque choice: Push for the truth, knowing that it could devastate the family and leave her destitute. Or look the other way.

On a Wednesday in May, a tiny woman scurried through the metal barricades on Park Row in lower Manhattan with her head down. She was dressed all in black and wearing a pair of aviator sunglasses, her face pressed into a scowl, a black purse slung across her chest. Ruth was leaving from her weekly visit with her husband at the Metropolitan Correctional Center. Outside the photographers were lurking, trying to goad her into saying something. One really got the sense of how oppressive her life had become. “I have no response to you,” she snapped at an ABC News television crew as she hailed a cab. Then she followed it up with what some have interpreted as a mumbled “Fuck you!”

It hasn’t helped her cause that Ruth has played the public-relations game exceedingly badly. In the months after her husband’s indictment, while hundreds of senior citizens and charities were reeling from devastating losses, and Ruth probably should have been off ladling soup for the lepers of Calcutta, she fought to hold on to a huge chunk of money. Her lawyers argued that much of the couple’s wealth—$62 million in savings, homes in New York, Palm Beach, and Montauk (valued at $7.5 million, $7.45 million, and $7 million, respectively), as well as Ruth’s $2.6 million worth of jewelry—belonged to Ruth exclusively and should be hers to keep. According to prosecutors, Ruth and Bernie also mailed packages full of jewelry to family members right after Bernie’s confession, in violation of the freeze on their assets. “She still hasn’t made any public apologies, she’s still trying to hold on to her money,” says a longtime employee of Bernie’s company. “You have not heard one compassionate, positive thing out of her.”

Rather than distance herself from her husband’s bad behavior (like, say, South Carolina governor Mark Sanford’s wife, Jenny, did) or casting herself as one of Bernie’s shocked victims (like her sons), Ruth managed only to lash herself more tightly to the man she had been bound to since her teenage years. “She adored him beyond the telling,” says a close girlfriend. “She worshipped him. She would tell me all the time, ‘Don’t you think he’s fabulous, don’t you think he’s great?’ ” Some argue, though rarely publicly, that it was precisely this closeness that could have made Ruth blind to what was happening. But to others who know the couple well, it’s almost impossible to imagine that she didn’t know what Bernie was up to, as they were inseparable, a team in every sense of the word. “He conferred with her on everything. The idea that she didn’t know anything is laughable,” says the longtime Madoff employee.

So far, prosecutors have not indicated plans to indict Ruth—she has not even been questioned in association with the fraud. But that could change at any time. The government and victims could also come after what money Ruth has left. Just before Bernie’s sentencing, prosecutors announced a settlement that leaves Ruth far too well off to satisfy most people but with only a fraction of what she was hoping for: She gets to keep $2.5 million, a number that corresponds to a portion of Ruth’s share of the couple’s older real-estate holdings. She must give up all the houses, including the Manhattan penthouse where she’s been living—and the $39,000 Steinway piano, the $1.6 million art collection, and her $36,000 Russian sable-fur coat. Now that Ruth has given up most of her assets, the government will try to retrieve some of the money taken out of the company by Bernie’s brother, Peter, and sons, Mark and Andy—Bernie made millions of dollars in loans to them in recent years, according to court documents.

Ruth was desperate to put an end to the financial limbo she’s been living in. For the last six months, the U.S. Attorney’s office has controlled every cent she could spend, rejecting her New York Times subscription as too extravagant, along with TV service above basic cable. Meanwhile, the only money Ruth had coming in each month was a Social Security check. Her $2.5 million nest egg could throw off a more-than-comfortable $150,000 in interest each year. It will save her from taking a greeter job at a Palm Beach Wal-Mart, but it’s still a big adjustment for a woman who once spent $29,887.94 in one month on her husband’s Platinum American Express card.

The house where Ruth Alpern lived as a child with her parents, Saul and Sara Alpern, and her older sister, Joan, is a little yellow clapboard on 224th Street in Laurelton. The neighborhood was tiny, primarily Jewish, industrious, and middle class. “It was more like growing up in a sort of rural upstate New York town than Queens,” says one schoolmate of Ruth’s. Ruth and her sister went to Far Rockaway High, where the style was saddle shoes and poodle skirts, and Ruth was voted “Josie College,” a sort of all-around yearbook good-girl honor.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the most common recollection of Ruth from that time is of her devotion to Bernie, who was two years ahead in school. They started going together during her freshman year, and he came to dominate her life. “Ruth spent an inordinate amount of time with him,” says a former neighbor and schoolmate who took Ruth on a few early dates and later invested in Bernie’s fund. “She was taken by him, and they had a very, very close relationship. She was over at his house most of the time. She gave up many of her friends to be his friend.” When they got engaged in high school, says Far Rockaway student Millie Beck, “I remember thinking, ‘Boy, he traded up.’ ” Ruth and Bernie married in 1959.

From then on, the Alpern and Madoff families, and business interests, became intertwined. Bernie graduated from Hofstra in 1960 and was casting about for moneymaking opportunities. Ruth’s father, a certified public accountant whose firm, Alpern & Heller, had been in business since 1948, provided the umbrella for Bernie to launch his market-making operation, buying and selling securities for other companies. Bernie quietly began an investment fund on the side, and two of Saul Alpern’s employees—the accountants Frank Avellino and Michael Bienes—started to work for him, funneling investors who wanted to get in on what were known even back then as Bernie’s guaranteed returns of 13.5 to 20 percent a year.

His earliest investors were friends of Ruth’s parents, retired teachers, accountants, and lawyers who’d sold their houses in Queens, moved down south, and had some extra money to put away. Many of them spent their summers in the bungalow colonies of the Catskills in upstate New York. “My hotel catered to retired people from Florida, my parents’ friends,” says Cynthia Arenson, a classmate of Ruth’s who ran the Sunny Oaks resort near Woodridge and whose parents were best friends with Ruth’s parents. “Thirty percent of my hotel invested in Bernie Madoff.”

At some point in the sixties, Saul and his wife retired to a condo in Florida, near Miami Beach, leaving Avellino and Bienes as the primary feeders to Bernie’s investment fund (until the SEC shut them down in 1993 for failing to register their clients’ investments). While some have suggested that the Ponzi scheme can be traced back to Bernie’s earliest days in business, friends from that time don’t believe that Ruth’s father was aware of it. “Saul was not the kind of guy who would steal money,” Arenson says. He and Ruth’s mother were steeped in Depression-era values: “My parents chipped in with his friends and bought [him] a suit for his 80th birthday.”

Saul and Sara spent summers at Sunny Oaks until 1996, the year Sara passed away at the age of 94. Sara reportedly bequeathed several trusts, one valued at $1 million and another worth $1.2 million, which were eventually to be split among Ruth, her sister, and the grandchildren. When Saul passed away three years later, his will listed two State of Israel bonds with a value of $1,000 each and 992 shares of Pitney Bowes stock worth $39,000 as his primary assets. It wasn’t much money to Ruth—she is said to have given her portion of the inheritance to her sister and grandchildren. By that point she was wealthy beyond her wildest imaginings, thanks to her husband’s booming business.

Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities was a family affair. Ruth’s office was on the eighteenth floor of 885 Third Avenue, sandwiched between the investment-advisory business on seventeen and the legitimate market-making company on nineteen. Shana Madoff, Bernie’s niece and the company compliance lawyer, also had offices on eighteen, along with Charles Wiener, the son of Bernie’s sister Sondra Wiener and the head of administration, and Maurice “Sonny” Cohn, who co-founded Cohmad Securities with Bernie and was recently charged with fraud by the SEC. According to a longtime employee, Joan’s husband, Robert Roman, also worked for the company doing insurance until two years ago, when he handed the job over to his son-in-law, Seth Hochman.

For many years, Ruth worked there, paying the invoices for the company. She also handled her and her husband’s personal checkbooks and expenses, rather than having a secretary do it, as Bernie’s brother Peter did. “They didn’t believe in letting other people take care of their personal stuff, when it came to money,” says a longtime employee of the firm.

Once she stopped working full-time, sometime in the nineties, Ruth continued to come into the office once or twice a week when she wasn’t traveling. “She played golf, visited her grandchildren, she had her hair done,” says the longtime employee. Occasionally she and Bernie went out to lunch, sometimes ending up at P. J. Clarke’s up the street or Nicola’s on 84th Street. Other times, Ruth would simply sweep into Bernie’s office and speak with him behind closed doors. She was bawdy and brassy, reportedly telling her husband, “Go fuck yourself,” or “I don’t give a shit,” when she got annoyed.

One of her closest friends asks: “What’s the definition of a sociopath? Can you do these terrible, horrendous things and still be a good person?”

It wasn’t Ruth’s style to be showy. She favored elegant, simple clothing—lots of black and crisp white dress shirts. But she did enjoy spending the money Bernie’s business provided, especially on travel. Time could be gauged by exotic locale. The Madoffs decamped for six weeks every summer to their apartment in the exclusive Château des Pins community in Cap d’Antibes on the French Riviera, where they also moored one of their multiple yachts named Bull. In the summer of 2008, they returned only once from their sojourn in France for the Madoff annual staff party at the Montauk Yacht Club. “Last summer, they were gone the most ever, which was a little odd,” says one of Ruth’s closest girlfriends.

Ruth’s American Express bill from December 2007 to January 2008 could form the basis for a line chart of her meanderings: $48.01 spent at the Publix supermarket in Palm Beach, Florida; $5,015 at the Montauk Yacht Club; $396 at Tiffany & Co. in New York; and $2,000 at Giorgio Armani in Paris. When they weren’t in France, summer weekends were idled away at the beach house in Montauk, which backs onto white dunes overlooking the sea. In the colder months, Ruth and Bernie traveled back and forth to their waterfront mansion in Palm Beach. In between were the annual ski outings sponsored by Interbourse, an organization of stock-exchange members from all over the world.

Mixed in among the credit-card charges are numerous gifts to charities: $1,000 to Project Sunshine, $10,000 to the 92nd Street Y, and $2,500 to the Everglades Foundation. Ruth and her husband, but primarily Ruth, developed a reputation for being quick with the checkbook. “There was never a charity that I was involved in where Ruth didn’t say, ‘What do you want?’ ” says a close girlfriend. “For all my charities, it was a $10,000 check. The 92nd Street Y, Mount Sinai. Anything we ever did, we knew we could depend on them.” One person involved with an organization the Madoffs donated to recalled visiting them in Palm Beach, asking for money. It was almost alarmingly easy: A casual 45-minute discussion led to a $4 million donation.

“What do we say about the fact that they were very generous when it turns out not to have been their money?” he says. “I’m assuming that’s how they wanted to be perceived, as successful, generous citizens of the world. After you have the houses and the yachts, what else do you want? You want to be well regarded. So they did that, too.”

The Madoffs were also generous with their employees, many of whom are still loyal to them. “I have nothing but good to say about her. She’s an outstanding lady,” says Richard Carroll, Ruth and Bernie’s boat captain in Palm Beach for 39 years. Their landscaper in Montauk, Cynthia Hahn, who worked for them for 24 years, recalls Bernie and Ruth advancing her a loan when she bought her first house twenty years ago. “There was a genuine caring,” Hahn says.

It’s hard not to wonder if this was part of the plan. Keeping everyone around you happy and taken care of would arguably be a wise move if you were hoping to avoid questions about your business practices. After Bernie was arrested, he and his wife were fixated on trying to pay their staff and give bonuses to employees. Hahn remembers that the Madoffs immediately sent her a check for the $6,500 they owed for recent landscaping work. “Ruth called me two days later and said, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so embarrassed. They’ve frozen all our accounts and that check isn’t going to go through.’ ” In February, Bernie left her a voice-mail message, apologizing again and saying that he would get a check to her as soon as possible. Finally, Hahn asked Ruth, “ ‘Will I ever get paid?’ She said, ‘I don’t think so.’ ”

If Ruth was aware that her husband’s business was a fraud, then she knowingly led nearly every one of her family members down the garden path to ruin. The Alpern name appears dozens of times on the list of Madoff victims; Saul Alpern and the Sara Alpern Family Trust are there, as are Ruth’s sons, Mark and Andy, along with their children. Ruth’s 96-year-old aunt is said to be nearly broke and may have to move out of her old-age home in Boca Raton, Florida. And then there is her sister, Joan, one of the only people who has stood by Ruth through the crisis. Joan and her husband, Robert, claimed losses of $2.7 million and $8.7 million, respectively. Their three daughters and their families were invested, too. Perhaps Bernie’s scheme seemed like a victimless crime, a spigot of money that would never run dry—maybe it seemed cruel not to let those closest to them partake.

Similarly, many of Ruth’s friends are suffering huge losses because of investments they made with her husband. Harriet Mayer, the wife of Lenny Mayer of the Mayer & Schweitzer brokerage firm, is said to have lost a substantial sum, along with Renee and Stanley Shapiro, who were with Ruth and Bernie at the company Christmas party the night before the fraud became public. The commercial-real-estate developer Edward Blumenfeld, who reportedly co-owned a $24 million jet with Bernie, and his wife, Susan, who decorated Madoff’s offices, lost a great deal of money.

One of Ruth’s best friends, Cynthia Lieberbaum, also lost money to Bernie, according to the list of victims. But another close friend, whose husband is a former finance executive, asked to invest years ago and was turned down. “Not as long as [your husband] is working,” she remembers Bernie telling her. She thought at the time that he must have been joking, but looking back on it, she suspects another explanation: “Most of the people who had money with him were not on Wall Street—they didn’t know how to read financial statements that weren’t true.” Toward the end, her husband did start to wonder where all of the securities in Madoff’s asset-management business were being held, but he never asked Bernie about it, because Bernie refused to discuss the investing side of his company. When the fraud became public, “We were floored, but not totally shocked,” the friend says. “The minute [my husband] heard it, he knew they weren’t making it up.”

There is some sympathy for Ruth among her friends, but most of her social circle has closed her out. “It’s a horrible thing. Her life is over,” says a former schoolmate. “The only hope for Ruth is to change her name and move out of New York.”

Another of her closest friends puts it bluntly: “What’s the definition of a sociopath? Can you do these terrible, horrendous things and still be a good person? That’s what I fight with all the time.”

To an outside observer, December 10, 2008, would have seemed like a typical day for Ruth. She met a friend from high school for lunch at a Tuscan restaurant called Centolire on Madison Avenue at 86th Street, where they chatted about the reunion and their growing families. “We talked about the children, how great the grandchildren were, that if we’d known about the grandchildren we’d have had them before having the children,” the friend says. “She was going to meet Bernie right after we had lunch.” She adds, “I always knew that Bernie had done very well, but I never ever realized to what extent.” Then, toward the end of lunch, Ruth mentioned that “she had a place in France and a place in Palm Beach.”

The words “a place in France and a place in Palm Beach” might still have been hanging in the air like a whiff of perfume when Ruth arrived at her husband’s office. Did she already know what they were going to discuss? Or was she in for the shock of her life? It’s impossible to say. That afternoon, Ruth kept a low profile and didn’t speak to many people. According to Boston regulators, she withdrew $10 million out of her personal account at Cohmad Securities. A few hours later, Bernie confessed to his sons that “it’s all just one big lie.” Bernie reportedly told Mark and Andy that once he’d distributed $200 million to $300 million to some employees and friends, he’d turn himself in. Instead of waiting, the boys left their parents’ apartment and met with lawyers from the firm Paul, Weiss, who promptly contacted the U.S. Attorney’s office and the SEC. They also retained Sard Verbinnen & Co., the crisis-management PR firm. As far as we know, Mark and Andy never discussed what their father had done with their mother, even though she was in the apartment when he told them. They haven’t spoken to Ruth since that day.

With the estrangement from her children, the public ostracism, no prospect of ever again living with her companion of 50 years, and the lingering possibility that she could be charged herself, Ruth is facing a bleak and isolated future. Her hope is that with Bernie’s sentencing behind her, she might be able to fade into non-notoriety, rent an apartment, and spend time with her grandchildren. Not wanting to become a shut-in, she makes a point of getting out and going for a walk every day, although she’s too timid to venture into places like museums, for fear of recognition. She is stung by the relentless press coverage. Reports of Bernie’s infidelities—one gossip item suggested that Bernie had had an affair with an executive assistant at a media company—were especially hurtful, although she doesn’t believe them. She is, amazingly, no longer angry with her husband for destroying their lives. Bernie, for his part, is said to be worried about his wife and whether she’ll be able to survive on her own.

The classmate who had lunch with Ruth on December 10 is convinced that she didn’t know a thing when they met that day. Ruth seemed relaxed and cheerful, not like a woman carrying a secret, who knew that her world was blowing apart and was putting on a brave face. Still, even her friends admit that Ruth is ultimately unknowable.

“I loved these people. I do not know who they are, but I loved them,” says another close friend. “I don’t know what she’s going to do. Too many people lost too much, too many people are so angry at her. People yell at me when I say she didn’t know anything. They say, ‘What, are you crazy?’”

Poor Ruth